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Friday, March 4, 2011

Southwest-AirTran Pilot Tension Defused?

Southwest Airlines’ first agreement with its pilots union on the future integration of AirTran Airways pilots has created tension with the AirTran union, illustrating an inherent risk in the merger of any two carriers.
Southwest and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) reached an agreement last week that “establishes a procedural framework” for that integration (Aviation Daily, Feb. 25). SWAPA subsequently told Aviation Week that the deal provides “additional layers of protection” for Southwest pilots, “ensures that all future aircraft come to Southwest and Southwest pilots” and “outlines the manner in which any integrated seniority list will be utilized.”
SWAPA would not elaborate. But in a Feb. 25 memo to its members, the Air Line Pilots Association Master Executive Council at AirTran told its members that portions of the agreement “have the potential to create divisiveness and the perception, or reality, of unfair treatment during the transition, a time when the goal of all concerned should instead be to ensure the smooth, transparent and harmonious integration of the two carriers.”
The memo raised issues with Southwest's union and management. It asserts AirTran pilots have unnecessarily been cut out of the process so far—it argues the transition agreements should be four-party documents that include the pilot groups and management from both carriers—and it revealed some seniority list integration worries.
The tension may have been reduced, at least temporarily, by a response from a Southwest executive that addresses some of the union’s concerns.
Chief Operating Officer Michael Van de Ven sent AirTran MEC Chairman Linden Hillman a letter Feb. 28 in which he agreed that Southwest will adhere to the AirTran contract as long as the carriers are flying under two separate operating certificates, unless the airline and union agree to changes.
Hillman says Van de Ven also wrote that Southwest considers itself bound by statute and contract to a “fair and equitable” seniority list integration, determined either through negotiations between the unions or, if they cannot agree, via binding arbitration.
Hillman told union members he is pleased with the commitments, but still is encouraging four-party talks and believes some provisions of the SWAPA transition agreement may be “inconsistent” with the AirTran pilots’ contract.
The merger committees for the two pilots unions began meeting March 1 for three days of scheduled talks to try to complete a “process agreement” for seniority list integration that would include when they will meet and a timeframe for the negotiations. The latter seems to have been the sticking point so far.
“The unwillingness, to date, of SWAPA representatives to agree to any specific point in time by which the integrated list will be implemented is troubling,” he wrote.

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